It looks like chicken. Tastes like chicken. But is it chicken?
The answer to that question could spark debate over the next several years as scientists around the world embark on a race to develop the first commercially viable â€œartificial meat.â€
Back in 2007, PETA announced a $1 million prize for the first scientist able to serve up large quantities of artificial chicken featuring a taste indistinguishable from that of â€œrealâ€ chicken flesh. The deadline for the new in vitro meat is 2016.
But recent developments suggest that lab-grown meat could become a reality as early as 2012.
Dr. Mark Post from the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands claims he could produce a synthetic beef patty this year. He has received funding from the Dutch government as well as 300,000 euros from an anonymous donor for his research. However, as his focus is on the development of beef, he is not eligible for PETAâ€™s cash prize.
To grow in vitro meat, scientists must first extract muscle cells from an animal and incubate them in a protein â€œbrothâ€ to allow them to multiply several times over. They then bulk up this meat by basically anchoring it in Velcro and stretching it â€“ the lab equivalent of â€˜exercise.â€™ With optimal starting conditions and materials, scientists could grow 50,000 tons of meat with only a handful of animal cells.
However, making the artificial meat taste as good as the real thing is where the challenges arise. It is difficult to recreate the meaty texture of muscle, and scientists may also have to add synthetic fat, blood, and colorant to make the meat more â€œrealâ€ tasting.
Artificial meat could appease vegetarians morally opposed to the slaughter of animals and reduce concerns over the environmental destruction caused by raising livestock. It may also become a global necessity due to the UN FAOâ€™s call for a 70% jump in food production to feed the world in 2050.
But even if successful, in vetro meat will clearly be a tough sell for many consumers who are wary of eating meat developed entirely in a laboratory.
What are your thoughts on test-tube meat? Would you eat meat that has been created in a lab?
Image CC licensed by rÃ©gine debatty: Dr. Mark Post on lab-grown meat